To lead one Indianapolis 500 practice session could be considered a fluke, but after dipping down to a 'mere' third place on the timesheets on Sunday, Josef Newgarden dismissed any questions about how genuine his pace was by blasting back to the top on Monday with a lap of 222.486mph (40.4519s).
"It's another strong day," said the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing driver. "We're stepping through it each time, and we have a lot more to go still. Our good start is continuing to roll forward. So we're feeling positive."
Newgarden's boost above 222mph was largely due to an outbreak of drafting that went on going into the final hour of the Monday session, with Newgarden looking particularly sharp in hunting out drafting opportunities to help speed him along.
"It looks like everyone was trying to race runs, and we kind of jumped in as well," he said. "It was a lot of fun. It was good to run out there with the guys, and I think we need to do more of that probably and figure out how the car operates in the draft a little bit. Certainly learned a lot of the way it reacts today."
Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti also broke into the 221mph speeds in the final hour, in what is already a markedly better Indy 500 preparation then their lamentable team showing in 2011.
"We ran on our own most of the day just trying to sort out some pretty big setup changes, and then at the end we ran in a group with our teammates here, and a few others joined in," said Hunter-Reay, who had the humiliation of failing to qualify last year and ending up having to buy into a seat at AJ Foyt Racing to get onto the grid. No such problems so far this year, though: "It was pretty good," he smiled.
Among the rest of the five-car Andretti contingent at IMS, Sebastian Saavedra was fifth fastest after previously topping the Sunday times, James Hinchcliffe was tenth fastest in the GoDaddy.com car, and Ana Beatriz was 13th.
"I'm pretty impressed with all five teams," said Hinchcliffe. "We've been really good about sticking to our plan across all the different programs, and I think it's reaping good benefits. We had a lot of good clean running today.
"We didn't do a lot of traffic running [until the end], and the car feels pretty good on our own, so tomorrow we'll probably run a little more in the pack," he added.
The "happy hour" of drafting also seemed to hugely invigorate new boy Jean Alesi. While the Lotus Fan Force United car had certainly picked up speed after the team had got down to some serious tuning-up overnight, it still appeared to be struggling to get over the 210mph mark that Alesi needed to consistently achieve for the third and final stage of the mandatory Rookie Orientation Program. At least, it was until the drafting fun began.
Alesi initially got a tow from the three Penske cars of Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe who had been making a habit of practising working together on and off for much of the afternoon. That pulled him over the 210mph limit for the first time, and after that it seemed to inject both car and rookie incumbent with increasing momentum and confidence. By the time Alesi completed his 15 laps over the target speed, he no longer needed a tow. And he was also done with ROP and officially eligible to undertake qualifying and line-up on the starting grid for the Indy 500 on May 27.
"I have heard about the Indy 500 from many of my friends who have raced here over the years, so being here and finally doing it myself is very exciting," said the former F1 driver. "I am finally beginning to understand why they were always so excited.
"Of course, I want to put on a good show for the Indy fans, so I am attempting to stay 100 per cent focused on my task - which is, of course, to make the car go as fast as possible," he added.
"Everything here is very much different from what I have experienced," he admitted, adding: "I am enjoying my time here very much. I am enjoying being able to talk to the fans, to sign autographs and pictures of my race cars from quite a few years ago."
Alesi is the final rookie to pass ROP, at least until Dragon Racing manages to find an engine for the team and get to put Katherine Legge out on track to begin her own orientation. Her team mate Sebastien Bourdais will need to join her for a refresher program after seven years away from US open wheel racing. For the moment, however, both drivers remain sidelined at IMS and the days are ticking down fast, with Lotus believed to be digging in their heels as a result of Dragon's $4.6m lawsuit against them.
In total, 29 drivers were in action on the speedway on Monday for a combined count of 1199 laps. There were three cautions during the day for a total of 31 minutes, with one of them a routine mid-session track inspection. The first of the other two cautions came 75 minutes into the session when Michel Jourdain Jr. crawled to a stop at the entrance to pit road; and the final caution came in the last hour just after Alesi had completed ROP when Graham Rahal's Honda engine died in a big puff of smoke while on a run.
"Unfortunately, we lost an engine, but we'll keep working hard," confirmed Rahal. The engine was the same one he'd had since the start of the season so it was at the end of its life and due for imminent replacement, meaning that the changeover hopefully won't incur any post-Indianapolis grid penalties. It's the first engine expiration seen on track at Indy for some years, after several seasons of frozen specifications and Honda exclusivity made for bullet-proof reliability for the most part.
Jourdain's problem was a simpler affair. "We had a little problem with a fuel pump, but we are still going according to schedule - building up speed little by little and working on getting my confidence back," he said of his return to the speedway after 16 years since his first and only entry into the Indy 500. "We have more changes planned for tomorrow, but for now I am quite happy with the way things are going."
James Jakes was the most dedicated worker of the day with 76 laps under his belt, while Ed Carpenter ran the fewest - just nine laps - before deciding that the set-up changes his team had introduced overnight weren't working out.
"Today we tried many different things with the car, and it just didn't work as well as Sunday," Carpenter conceded. "I felt we went in the wrong direction today. So, luckily, the weather looks good for the remainder of the week, and we can go back with the car similar to Sunday's setup. We'll work hard again tonight to get the car in the proper direction for Tuesday's runs."Full practice 3 times available